A Very Brief History of the Art Com Electronic Network (ACEN)
In 1984, during the holiday season, Carl Loeffler, CEO of an artist’s space called Art Com, offered me the opportunity to work with him on starting a computer network for artists. Eventually, we were joined by Anna Couey in this project.
At the time, we all had computers, but we had no distribution means. Carl found out about the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), and our means of distribution was solved. We would provide the content and the basic programming, and the WELL would distribute our material.
Since I was the only one with any programming experience, I became Systems Engineer. This meant basically that I spent a lot of time learning how to program UNIX and set up a menu-driven structure that would allow easy access to content invented collectively by Carl, Anna and myself.
We recognized early on that the more participation we could generate, the more users we would have coming back daily. At that time, at least, continuing on the WELL was determined by the number of users you had attracted.
The art we did was conceptual, as there was no means of doing good graphics or pictures. Additionally, rather than having an “artist” in control of the content, we also realized early on that the content would come from users. We would provide a structure or a setting in which participants could let their imaginations run free.
As Howard Rheingold mentions, we did have a large-scale performance running for at least 2 years call Das Casino. The key was a simple random number generator I programmed which would generate where the ball on a roulette wheel landed. Carl was the moderator, and he encouraged people to bet CasinoBux. By the end of the performance, people were betting their houses, their cars, their wives…anything imaginable. This environment that encouraged interaction was the key to our success.
We also had other performances. One was called The Talk Show. It was like a TV talk show, except that due to the lack of visuals, talk was all you got. Another, even more successful performance was called Yer Lying. In this event, we announced that no matter what you said, we (Carl and I) would say—Yer lying! So, when someone would say—My name is Jim Brown, we’d say “Yer Lying,” And of course, Jim Brown would be completely outraged. The premise was very simple—we did what we said we were going to do—but people misunderstood truth. They thought truth was some independent absolute, but in fact, it was that we did what we said we would do..
ACEN was launched in 1986, and ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 13 years. It was in my experience, the longest run for an artist’s project.